Preview Sarah’s Song

I can’t wait for you to meet Sarah, her best friend Melody, and our hero Michael and his band mates Aidan and Conor.

Too bad Conor from the story wasn’t here to do a drum roll… because I’d like to share the prologue and first chapter!

Prologue

Sarah Austin

Eugene, Oregon, USA

“God, Sarah, I just wish you’d think about someone else for once.”

Ian’s words burned into me. Sliced into me. Filled me with rage – an emotion so sudden and new that I had no idea what to say. I clenched my fists in my lap and glared out the passenger window, not seeing the people milling around downtown Eugene in the mist. Sunshine broke through for a second and I saw myself reflected back in the window, outrage in my dark eyes. The silence inside the car rang loud and long.

Think about someone else? That’s all I’ve done!

I’ve spent the last three years thinking of him, taking care of him, putting my life on hold for him. Could I ever make up for my horrible mistake three years ago and make things right again? No, I knew better than that. But I only wanted to take a girl’s trip with my best friend Melody. Was that so selfish?

He drummed his fingers on the wheel, fast, irritated. He had cracked his window, even though he knew it bothered my ears, and even the tires rolling on wet pavement sounded passive aggressive.

I worked so hard to erase his pain, to make things right in his life, but they never got better. Really, things were getting worse. Maybe I had finally reached my breaking point.

“Time shouldn’t matter,” he added in a low voice, and the cold anger startled me. “Everyone thinks I should get over it, but what do they know? What do you know, Sarah?” He said my name like it was a dirty word.

A tiny whisper somewhere in my head asked, what about me? Do I ever get to move on? Hadn’t I paid enough?

A feeling had been growing inside me, something restless and wild, and it was reaching a critical point. I wanted more—more what, I wasn’t sure. More life? More adventure? More direction? More connection with other people? I wanted to live a life and not just take care of Ian, alone all of the time.

Maybe it was selfish but the desire was growing more each day.

I worked my jaw side to side to loosen the tension. “I never once said you should just move on. You know that. You know I’ve been there for you.”

Like, every… single… day.

I couldn’t remember how to think about myself anymore. I just wanted a few days to breathe, to think. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what I needed to think about, but I just needed to step back from my life to see it. Right now, it all felt like a fog that I couldn’t escape, where I couldn’t really see anything clearly.

In the last few weeks, the trees started budding for spring. The earth was renewing; starting over. Some days, it felt as if everything else on this planet got a fresh start but I wasn’t allowed one.

Some other faint thought followed that one, but I couldn’t grab onto it. A memory? An echo of a dream? Maybe it was a song – I could almost hear a man singing.

If you want to fly, I’ll let you fly away…

I know you were tired of running… I’ll let you fly

 The music was just out of reach. It felt like I was trying to remember something urgently important, something that would change everything. I wanted to pull it out of the mist and convince myself I wasn’t going insane.

“I can’t move on,” Ian said so low it took a few seconds for the words to register.

Half of me wanted to turn toward him and reassure him, but what could I say? ‘It’s alright, you don’t have to move on. We’ll stay in our apartment together, just us, and wallow in the pain.’

No. Maybe I didn’t deserve to move on, but I needed to. Wanted to. I wanted to go back to work and see people and live again. Instead of saying any of that, I continued to glare out my window, feeling my heart beating too hard.

We’d driven through downtown to the other side where the intersections were wider. Soon we’d hit the split and turn to go up Coburg. He stopped at a light for a split second before stomping on the gas. I looked forward and gasped.

“Ian, it’s red.”

He slammed on the breaks. The car screeched to a halt right in the middle of the intersection, nothing in front of us.

“What are you doing? Don’t stop! You have to go.”

He gripped the wheel in both hands, staring forward. Horns blared at us. A car flew by from the right, inches from the front of ours. I looked in that direction. A giant silver truck barreled toward us. Our car still didn’t move.

“Ian! It’s not stopping! You have to move!”

Why wouldn’t he move—

Lauren McAlister

Dublin, Ireland

Lauren pulled a long sip from her drink before reaching over and hitting “record”.

Her reflection stared back at her, with her sky blue eyes and strawberry blond hair looking washed out. An odd feeling overcame her, like she was looking at someone else. She dropped her gaze. It was her, not the video quality that was fading.

It took a second for her shaky fingers to find their place on the guitar strings. Then she strummed, closing her eyes, pulling the intro out like taffy. She wanted to feel the music, really feel it like she used to—in her heart and soul.

Music made her. It saved her. But not anymore.

That could be a line in another song but those songs were for someone else to sing, not her.

Lauren brought her attention back to this song, the one that had been weaving itself inside her for weeks.

As she strummed, she talked.

“I’m not sure what this is titled. I’m calling it ‘Carry me Home’. It’s more about carrying my music for me. I wanted to share it and say… I wanted to say I love you all. And… and rock on.”

She started to sing.

A bird in a tree, singing

Does the world hear?

A bird in a tree, singing,

Does the world care?

It’s my song

Maybe your song

something we all need to hear

A cry from the deep, secrets meant to keep

Except the bird is singing

So much hurt, everything so weighted

All the time I wasted, all the things I hated

Hope had a home but I couldn’t see

Music was my phone, my way home

Now it will find you for me

Sing, keep the music alive

Just sing

Take wings and find a home

Take my words and roam

Don’t waste away like me

Find somebody, find somebody

Let the world see

Let the world hear

A bird in a tree

… is singing for me –

somewhere

Chapter One

Michael Singer

Red Rock Beach by Dublin, Ireland

Who are we now? Is Mystic Mist done?

The spike of anger surprised me. It was new, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to be angry at Lauren—that was how her dad reacted to everything. I was her safe place. Or had been.

Lauren was gone. Really gone.

And I was thinking about the band? Honestly?

We trudged up the hill like we had an appointment, a destination besides the cliff. Once there, we stood in silence, Conor and Aidan on either side of me. As lead guitarist, I was often looked at as the leader of the band. I wasn’t leading anyone these days. I tossed the handful of sandy dirt over the cliff, watching the wind scatter it into oblivion, off into the Atlantic Ocean.

I had found her in her room this morning, her face so at peace that I couldn’t make myself understand that she was gone. Where had she gone? How could she be here last night and gone today? My brain didn’t bother with answers that my heart couldn’t comprehend.

After all the emergency people left, we’d been sitting around the band house in shock. Aidan decided we were coming here, to say goodbye I guess. Or maybe to have some quiet to gather ourselves. He chose here because this was a place that brought her peace.

Are ya at peace, Lauren?

Conor shook his head, drawing my attention. “She didn’t have to do it.”

The wind almost hid his hoarse voice but then we realized what he said. Both Aidan and I snapped in his direction.

“Conor,” Aidan started in a warning tone, his jaw tight. I clenched my fists but couldn’t contain everything. I threw my hands up, twisting and rushing away from them. Instantly, Aidan and Conor ran around in front of me. Both put a hand on my shoulder.

When I semi collected myself, I said, “We don’t know.”

We didn’t know. All her medical issues, the drugs, the booze… We just couldn’t say what happened yet.

“Yeah, we don’t know it was on purpose,” Aidan said, directed toward his cousin Conor. To me, it didn’t matter, but I wondered why there wasn’t a note or any kind of goodbye. Unless, maybe there was a note somewhere and I missed it? I would look later.

We turned toward the ocean again but didn’t walk back to the cliff. That would be too dangerous, too close to the edge. We were on the edge emotionally already. The daylight was fading away. I didn’t want this day to end this way, without her. But I couldn’t make the minutes stop. Waves roared far below, their briny scent rising up. Staring straight out into the blue endless sky, I picked out the faint shape of the moon. Maybe it was that faint because it was showing from the other side – where she was. Maybe she could see it too.

“Should we say something?” Aidan asked. But no one did. No one could. Especially after Conor’s comment—it was too fresh to even process yet. We couldn’t talk about how wonderful she’d been or how the world would be darker without her. She’d been like dynamite blowing through everything. Her fire went into our lyrics. Her passion and anger in her voice drew crowds at our gigs. She’d been consuming. But, without doubt, we all loved Lauren.

Thinking her name shot a stab of pain through my heart and I looked heavenward, fighting the tears. It wasn’t fair. She was hardly given a chance in life. I had tried so hard to make it better for her and carry some of her pain. I’d been her best friend, listening ear, sometimes her man. It’d been complicated but I had always been whatever she needed.

We started out as neighbors turned friends over a shared love of music. It didn’t take long for me, even as a boy, to know something was off in her home. We were ten the first time I heard fighting. We were playing a board game on the floor in the living room while music videos blared on the TV. She moved her piece on the board and went back to head banging. It took a minute to register the yelling from another room.

I watched the sparkle disappear from her eyes. The front door slammed, and her dad’s current girlfriend continued yelling from the front yard as she left.

Lauren shrugged and turned the music up. “It’s your turn!” she yelled, jabbing a hand at the game. I thought it was okay for a second, but even as a kid I noticed how stiffly she sat and the way she glanced behind me every few seconds.

We heard her father stomp up the stairs and slam another door.

“He’ll be fine after he drinks,” Lauren said as if that were normal. That was her typical reaction, at least the first few years. Then she started down her own path of drinking, drugs, and self harm. It spiraled out of control when her health took a dive—thanks to sickle cell disease running in her family, along with alcoholism and some schizophrenia. Talk about getting the shitty end of the stick in about every instance.

Some days, she was full of fire. Other days she just wanted to hide from all the pain, both emotionally and physically. And through all the days, we had music. Starting a band in my garage happened so naturally that I couldn’t remember who thought of it. We could escape the violence in her home and the entire outside world to get lost into our own.

I choked on a sob, trying to push the past away. Conor and Aidan both wrapped an arm around me.

Conor had been my friend since we could push toy trucks around. He joined the band to play the drums. We’d been lucky to know someone with natural talent, plus Conor’s parents had paid for private lessons from a young age. Conor took only one thing in life seriously, and that was drumming. In all other aspects, he had a ‘live and let live’ attitude.

Conor brought Aidan in to play bass—they were cousins but opposites in some ways. Conor was a ginger with light reddish blond hair. Aidan had dark hair like me, but with deep brown eyes. Their personalities were like night and day as well.

From a young age, Aidan was obsessed with bass players from all over the music world, Duff McKagan, Flea, Cliff Burton, Getty Lee, despite so many Irish bands not including the bass. He was the guy you could go to when you needed advice. He kept the peace when needed. It made sense that he thought of coming here to remember Lauren.

What did that make me? I wasn’t sure. I actually didn’t know my role in life besides making music, keeping the band on track, and keeping Lauren alive. Except I hadn’t.

“Is this the end?” I asked out loud, not thinking.

“What the hell?” Conor nudged my arm. He leaned forward to share a look with Aidan on the other side of me.

“What do you mean?” Aidan asked, “The end of what?”

“The band. Us,” I said. A long pause followed.

“We’re still here,” Aidan finally said quietly. “She didn’t want us to fall apart.”

But we would. I hated that thought, but wasn’t that how it worked? What if I didn’t want us to go on without her?

Conor shook his head. Cleared his throat. He was gearing up to say something important, which wasn’t his style. After some feet shuffling, he said, “People need us.”

I looked at him for a long moment, wanting to believe that but not sure I could. We weren’t that famous. Did our band mean anything to other people, or just to us?

 It had been something that kept Lauren going, until it didn’t anymore. Why did this have to happen? Everything felt wrong now. Why couldn’t I have just kept her alive?

Sarah

Eugene, Oregon

It was more than a thought or feeling, so much more, yet it stayed at the edge of my perception, ever so quietly and slowly coming my way. I wasn’t afraid. It wasn’t coming for me, just to me. Peace settled into my chest, like morning sunshine and music at the same time. Chords on a guitar played a soft song. Notes came in from another guitar, both acoustic. A man’s voice seemed to rise out of the song followed by a woman’s, singing in perfect harmony.

I’ll let you fly away . . .

Was this the memory that had tickled my mind? It didn’t matter. This felt so sweet, feeling the music flow through me.

This is what it feels like, I realized, to not be full of guilt.

 Then the peaceful feeling evaporated, replaced by darkness and a question: why would I feel guilty? That brought it all back: the argument about the girl’s trip, the intersection, the red light, the truck barreling toward my window as I sat still, helpless. No.

Ian, why didn’t you move?

“Sarah?” The voice was unfamiliar but when I pried my eyelids open, Melody’s face swam in front of me with tears pooling in her greenish-hazel eyes. Her cascading brown ringlets were swept over one shoulder as she leaned toward me.

Why was she so worried?

“Melody?” I tried to reach for her and she took my hand. My mind felt torn between a story it was weaving and reality, but each breath took me farther away from the fragmented thoughts I’d been chasing.

Melody wiped at her eyes, trying for a wobbly smile.

“You really do have crazy long eyelashes,” I said, my voice airy like I hadn’t talked in a long time.

She gave a gurgled laugh. “Sarah, you okay in there?” 

“Hello, there.” The voice came from behind Melody. A young woman doctor waited for me to focus on her. Her brown eyes reached out, caring. “Can you tell me your name?”

“Sarah Austin. Melody didn’t tell you?”

The doctor smiled. “You weren’t so sure last time. This is progress.”

 Melody took a shaky breath. Her hand tightened around mine. “Sarah, welcome back.”

This was a hospital—this was like before, yet, it wasn’t. This was new.

 “Sarah, I’m Dr. Sharma. Are you in any pain?”

After a second’s thought, I said, “No, not that I can tell right now.” I almost shook my head but it felt weird. Maybe something was wrong.

“That’s good to hear.”

“Am I okay?”

“You have a concussion and contusions from the seat belt—that just means bruising. Those will probably get worse over the next few days but I can prescribe a pain killer. You’ve been in and out since arriving here, so I ordered a brain scan. No swelling or bleeding.”

I looked at Melody, confused. Hadn’t I just woken up? How long have I been here? The words didn’t come out.

The doctor had me track a light with my eyes while asking a series of simple questions to check my memory. When she turned to speak to the nurse, a long sheath of straight black hair swept down her back, swishing with her movement. She came back to me and said they were going to monitor me at least until the next day. “I’ll be around in another couple of hours, okay? If you need anything, call for your nurse.”

This all felt routine, but something felt very wrong. Once we were alone, I asked Mel, “What about . . . Ian? He’s gone?”

She nodded and I sucked in a breath.

“He left with his mother.”

My breath rushed out as stars sparkled in my vision from relief. Melody started gushing, “No, no, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean he died. He just left, and I haven’t seen him.”

“What do you mean, just left? Did he at least check on me first?”

Her gaze dropped as she gave a small shake. It didn’t make any sense that he would take off and leave me alone, like he didn’t care. Maybe my brain was rattled and I was missing something, or maybe his overly controlling mother forced him to leave. Still, he couldn’t stand up to her and stay for me?

“So he didn’t get injured, if he left? Do you know if he’s okay?”

When she didn’t have an answer, I asked for my phone. My things were in a bag and my phone still had a charge, so I called him.

It rang for a long minute, and just when I expected voicemail, he answered.

“Hello.” It was his mother’s chilly voice.

“Oh, hi Lucinda, is Ian alright? Where is he?”

“My son wants nothing to do with you. Leave him alone.” She hung up.

I stared at my phone and then looked at Mel, utterly confused and hurt. Melody must have known something was going on because she was quiet, just sitting beside me and holding my hand.

Just then I caught sight of blue uniforms lingering in my doorway. My heartbeat halted, my chest constricting.

“Sarah Austin?” The taller officer asked as he stepped into the room. “Can we ask you a few questions?”

Melody jumped in. “She’s confused right now—the doctor said she has a concussion. Ian was driving.”

“We talked to the doctor, got an update,” the officer said, catching my attention. He was slim and had a very pretty face, making him look like a catwalk model and not a cop at all. The shorter, stocky officer remained by the door. 

“What happened?” I asked, wondering if it was all wrong in my head.

“We’re here to ask you that. Do you remember what happened?”

At first, music filled my head, but I pushed past that. My mind didn’t want to go back to the accident, but I remembered the panic, the oncoming traffic, the scene playing out silently for some reason. Oddly, I didn’t remember a crunch or the sound of screaming. Just getting flung sideways.

“Ian ran a red light, then slammed on the breaks. I yelled for him to move, but he wouldn’t. He just hung onto the wheel. Then I saw a truck coming at us, at me. It was coming so fast.”

“I heard she was texting,” Melody said quickly, again sticking up for me, but it made me wonder if I looked guilty. Was I in trouble? The tall office started to glance at his partner but simply nodded instead.

“She didn’t look up in time.” He explained the oncoming truck hit the back end of our car, spinning it. Then traffic coming from the other direction hit the driver side, where most of the damage occurred.

For a second, I could visualize the car, crumpled in on all sides. I suddenly felt very lucky that I wasn’t seriously hurt. How did Ian walk away? But he must be okay if he left the hospital. I shivered, thinking of his mother, Lucinda Warrant, who loved to blame me for everything wrong with the world.

“Do you remember what happened before that?” he asked. Did the police want to find out what I did to cause the accident? Did they know about the other accident?

If I lied, they would find out. Lucinda would tell them, and Ian was possibly using me as a scapegoat for this accident. Lying would only make this worse, and I couldn’t think fast enough to lie anyway.

“We were arguing, I guess. Not like yelling, but he was mad. I wanted to go on a trip without him and Ian didn’t like that. He has trouble being alone, ever since

The first officer finished for me: “Since his accident three years ago?”

They knew

“Accidents happen,” the shorter cop said by the door, his tone light, as if those two words could explain it all away. “You don’t remember what happened?”

I didn’t want to remember this accident or the one three years ago. I closed my eyes for  a second. The second stretched out and I heard Melody tell them about my concussion and how I needed to rest.

If accidents just happened, why did they happen to me so often? Why did I cause so many?

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Happy Valentine’s Day! (And a sneak peek from Sarah’s Song, my work in progress)

Romance is in the air! It’s also a great day for thinking of the special people in your life like your mom, sister, and friends.

After a long period of beautiful, sunny weather here in Oregon, we’re having a stormy, rainy day today. I don’t mind! It feels like a perfect writing or reading day by the fire. (And I just happen to have a new book out if you need one! Check out my home page for all the links.)

You’ve probably seen my posts about my Billionaire trilogy. I’ve also been working on another book. It’s highly emotional and that’s one reason why I’ve been working on it longer. I wanted to share a little from the opening of that book.

Here’s the blurb:

Sarah Austin never had a musical bone to her body…until suddenly she does. When her life is turned upside down, she finds herself turning to music, playing the guitar and writing songs. Half a world away, Michael Singer, lead guitarist and singer of Mystic Mist, can’t believe he’s hearing his band’s unfinished song from someone else. How did this American girl steal it? They both want answers for very different reasons.

(There’s so much more to this story, but I don’t want to give away too much, too soon!)

Chapter One – Something’s gotta give

Sarah

Eugene, Oregon, USA

“God, Sarah, I just wish you’d think about someone else for once.”

Ian’s words burned into me. Sliced into me. Filled me with rage – an emotion so sudden and new that I had no idea what to say. I clenched my fists in my lap and glared out the passenger window, not seeing the people milling around downtown Eugene. The silence inside the car rang loud and long.

Think about someone else? That’s all I’ve done!

I’ve spent the last three years thinking of him, taking care of him, putting my life on hold for him. Could I ever make up for my horrible mistake three years ago and make things right again? No, I knew better than that. But I only wanted to take a girl’s trip with Melanie, and actually spend some quality time with my one real friend. Was that so selfish?

He drummed his fingers on the wheel, fast, irritated. He had cracked his window, even though he knew it bothered my ears, and even the tires rolling on wet pavement sounded passive aggressive.

I had worked so hard to erase his pain, to make things right in his life, but they never got better. Really, things were getting worse. Maybe I had finally reached my breaking point.

“Time shouldn’t matter,” he added in a low voice, and the cold anger startled me. “Everyone thinks I should get over it, but what do they know? What do you know, Sarah?” He said my name like it was a dirty word.

A tiny whisper somewhere in my head asked, what about me? Do I ever get to move on? Hadn’t I paid enough?

I worked my jaw side to side to loosen the tension. “I never once said you should just move on. You know that. You know I’ve been there for you.” Like, every… single… day.

I couldn’t remember how to think about myself anymore. I just wanted a few days to breathe, to think. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what I needed to think about, but I just needed to step back from my life to see it. Right now, it all felt like a fog that I couldn’t escape, where I couldn’t really see anything clearly.

In the last few weeks, the trees started budding for spring. The earth was renewing; starting over. Some days, it felt as if everything else on this planet got a fresh start but I wasn’t allowed one.

Some other faint thought followed that one, but I couldn’t grab onto it. It tickled my mind so I couldn’t make it out. A memory? An echo of a dream? Maybe it was a song – I could almost hear it.

If you want to fly, I’ll let you fly away . . .

I know you were tired of running . . . I’ll let you fly

 The music was just out of reach. It felt like I was trying to remember something urgently important, something that would change everything. I wanted to pull it out of the mist and convince myself I wasn’t going insane.

“I can’t move on,” Ian said so low it took a few seconds for the words to register.

Half of me wanted to turn toward him and reassure him, but what could I say? ‘It’s alright, you don’t have to move on. We’ll stay in our apartment together, just us, and wallow in the pain.’

No. Maybe I didn’t deserve to move on, but I needed to. Wanted to. I wanted to go back to work and see people and live again. Instead of saying any of that, I continued glaring out my window, feeling my heart beat too hard.

He stopped at a light for a split second before stomping on the gas. I looked forward and gasped.

“Ian, it’s red.”

He slammed on the breaks. The car screeched to a halt right in the middle of the intersection, nothing in front of us.

“What are you doing? Don’t stop! You have to go.”

He gripped the wheel in both hands, staring forward. Horns blared at us. A car flew by from the right, inches from the front of ours. I looked in that direction. A giant sliver truck barreled toward us. Our car still didn’t move.

“Ian! It’s not stopping! You have to move!”

Why wouldn’t he move—

~~~

If you want to read more, you can follow the book on Vella where you can read the first 3 chapters for free and follow as new episodes come out. I’m having fun writing for this new platform but I know it’s not for everyone. This story will be released as an ebook later this year as well.

I hope you have a fabulous Valentine’s Day and week!

A little preview….

The Billionaire Who Bought Me

Ch. 1. Just a sleazy fake girlfriend for sale over here

Of course I didn’t want to, but did I have any choice?

I glanced at the text from my friend Jenna that read, “Zoe, are you sure you want to do this?”

She knew I needed a LOT of money to save my sister’s life and get my family out of financial trouble. Jenna was even the one who told me about this site in the first place. It was called Pay to Play and it allowed men to buy video time with women.

At first I was shocked she’d do something like that, but we had both struggled the last couple of years, and Jenna had two small kiddos to think about. She video chatted with men at night after her kids went to bed. She had a waitressing job in the mornings, but it wasn’t cutting it.

I had tried not to judge her. Actually, I was more worried than anything else. Then my little sister got sick. My parents put all their earthy assets into getting her the best care, trying to keep her alive until she could get a heart transplant. She was only fourteen. The stress got to my dad, and ironically, he had a heart attack. Then my grandfather died. We were drowning.

 So, yeah, I asked her about the site.

I needed a way to make money while still having time to be with my family and help them. She showed me the ins and outs of the site, how to avoid things I wouldn’t want to do, and then we noticed the ad.

It was listed under “In person, extended projects” so I shouldn’t have been looking there in the first place. The title read, “Fake GF for a few weeks.”

That didn’t sound that bad. The ad read:

“Looking for female companion, someone with little or no online presence or a high profile job. Not what you think but it pays very well. Six figures. Must be willing to travel, sign NDA, and take on assigned persona. Reply with your photo and current job. ”

I just had to go on a trip with this man? Pretty easy for one hundred thousand dollars. Not what you think. It could be a really old guy who wanted a nurse or a pretty lady by his side. I could be changing diapers or living it up like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Who knew why he was doing this. I didn’t care. And I wouldn’t want to get to know him ‘for reals’—just for the job.

And besides, I could keep Jenna updated on my whereabouts to stay safe, if I actually secured a job like this. Maybe I could also download an app that would track my location and report it to Jenna and my family.

I clicked a link to see more about the man behind the ad. His level said Billionaire, but I wasn’t sure it they had to prove their income level. However, I knew he had enough extra money to pay for this project. That wasn’t a small chunk of change to just hand over.

He hadn’t included a photo or any personal information in the bio section, just a sentence: You won’t need to get to know me, just the character sheets for myself and you.

Hmm. Maybe he liked mystery and the power it gave him. This could be about a power rush, something outrageous that he could do simply because he had the money. Would he be mean?

I sent a text back to Jenna: It’s not always about what we want, is it?

Then I sent another text promising to put safeguards in place. My fingers shook, but I hit ‘reply’ to the ad and wrote:

“My name is Zoe Montgomery and I’m a home health nurse, although I also work a few hours in my family’s bookstore when I can. My last client recently died so I’m awaiting a new assignment. Attached please find my photo. I just joined this site so I’m learning how it all works still. Thank you for your consideration.”

Seriously? It sounded like I was applying for a librarian job, not some fake girlfriend ad.

“It’s just an application, Zoe,” I told myself, questioning if I had the looks and body for a job like this. I was a nurse who liked helping other people, and a bookworm who collected old fairytales. This billionaire would read my response and laugh, unless he wanted a naughty librarian?

But I had to look into every way possible to make money to keep Belina alive.

Every time I doubted if I could do this, a memory flashed in my mind in a series of images. It was almost a year ago now. At first I would see Bel smiling at me, tall oaks behind her with loads of green leaves shading the park.

Belina looks so much like me, just as I look like our mother: the same long dark hair, same long body, same long legs. We all share a wide smile and dark eyes that get shiny with happiness or anger.  

A flash, and the picture changed. Her smile fell. Her face went blank.

Another flash. She looked at me, her expression both blank and full of dread. I could see something was very wrong.

Another flash, her eyes rolled back, showing white.

And then she fell.

I raced to her, checking for breathing and a pulse. I’d been trained in CPR when I worked at the pool as a teenager, and then again in nursing school. Half of me screamed in panic, but that half was inside. On the outside, I went into action with chest compressions and breaths.

An ambulance came with squad cars and the fire truck, a normal response I guess.

Belina’s heart stopped three times that we know of. The doctor at the hospital said I’d saved her life but it wasn’t over. I just helped her fight for another day. We didn’t know that at the time, of course. But now I had a real chance to do something that would matter, that would make a real difference.

I shook myself from the memory, and shook off the acidic fear it always brought. When it happened, I took action. But when the memory comes, it stops me cold.  

My hand hovered over the keyboard. Then, I closed my eyes and tapped a fingernail on the enter key. Message Sent.

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Sneak Peek! First Chapter of A Stranger Like Me

Private investigator Angie Duval lives in her RV with her over-sized, furry best friend and partner, Galaxy. She found Galaxy abandoned as a puppy out in the Eastern Oregon desert. She’s in Eugene now to locate a missing teen when she runs into herself–or, a mirror image of herself.

Her newly discovered twin sister is named Vivi Leavitt, a school counselor who co-owns a women’s boutique and bookstore with her mother.

Vivi is a perky bookworm, so basically Angie’s identical twin and complete opposite. Or so she thinks at first.

For most twins separated at birth, it’s awesome to find the other one. But these two both know they weren’t adopted. It doesn’t make sense, except that they were lied to. Angie’s mom passed away a year ago, leaving only questions.

Angie has a teen to find, who is apparently hanging with a man who calls himself Demon, so she can’t drop everything and dig into her birth situation. In fact, she’s worked hard to forget her childhood and wants to walk away from this too…except she can’t. So suddenly she has two cases, and one’s a little too personal.

Angie and Vivi don’t like what they find when they start investigating their parents, and the case with Candice gets complicated too.

The twins want to know why they were separated and lied to…but at the same time, they don’t. However, it’s starting to look like whatever happened is bigger than just them.

* * *

Chapter One: Angie

Angie Duval glanced at the photo of the missing teen taped to her Winnebago’s dashboard. Had that been Candice she’d glimpsed yesterday?

The possible sighting happened at dusk. She thought it was Candice up ahead, walking with a group of teens. She had hurried to catch up when they rounded a corner and mixed into the downtown crowd. She’d followed the foot traffic for three blocks before conceding she couldn’t see anything.

If Candice was with a group, she might have some protection. Angie worried anyway—she knew the danger runaway teens faced every day.

Sighing, Angie tapped her fingers on the steering wheel while scratching Galaxy’s head with her other hand. “Ready for another wild goose chase?” she asked her partner and best friend.

“Raaahahhaaa!”

Galaxy was a vocal breed, although Angie wasn’t sure what breed exactly. German Shepherd ears. Husky voice. Surprising intelligence. She’d found Galaxy as a tiny gray, speckled puppy, all alone out on a desert road. The specks had looked liked stars to Angie, hence the name. The tiny fluff ball was now over a hundred pounds and had enough personality for ten dogs.

She also shed enough long dog hair for about twenty dogs.

But, she was always by Angie’s side, happy to see her, and protecting her.  You couldn’t find a person that loyal and accepting.

“Alright, let’s hit the street, baby girl.” Angie moved back into the open living space of the mini RV to click Galaxy’s leash onto her collar. The giant dog jumped outside, ignoring the stairwell, and shook her long coat of hair in glee.

They set off out of the paid parking lot at the edge of downtown Eugene, Oregon. The earlier summer rain had cleared and it was a whopping seventy-five degrees, a somewhat cool day for mid June in western Oregon.

She wore her typical leggings and black T-shirt over a tank top. Hopefully it wouldn’t heat up too much, although more for Galaxy’s sake than hers.

Angie was petite and small boned, and looked young for her twenty-five years. Her wavy hair probably made her look younger still. Before, she didn’t like it, but now it helped her fit in with teens and do her job better.

A tall man with sun-streaked hair was playing a guitar on the corner. He looked a lot like those old pictures of Jesus. They nodded at each other as she passed by.

As she walked farther downtown, she passed groups of people sitting on blankets, playing drums, and passing a pipe. Clouds of pot smoke floated here and there. It brought back memories of hanging out, pretending she didn’t have a care in the world. She tried to walk Galaxy around the smoke, but she also needed to check their faces.

It was probably too much to hope she’d spot Candice again today, but either way, she’d keep at it. She shivered, a memory of cold, long nights on the streets creeping up her back. Never being full. Always on the lookout for who wanted to hurt you or use you. Constantly watching your stuff so it didn’t get stolen.

Focus. She had to be present and aware, always ready.

So she brought her mind back to this place and the people here. She wasn’t a stranger to Eugene, having grown up in Portland, two hours north. But city people tended to stick within their own city, in her experience.

She neared the 5th Street Saturday Market, which didn’t allow dogs into the park area. The teens usually hung around outside anyway, so she continued walking to make a few laps around the perimeter.

She checked groups of teens amidst the homeless, potheads, artisans, and market goers. People were calling downtown a cesspool, and she could see why, but she also noted a police presence and she’d heard talk about making downtown safer.

This town was much more than its problems. Eugene was a college town full of diverse students, Oregon Duck fans, professionals, and the world’s most opinionated and eco-friendly hippies. Angie identified with that last group the most. She didn’t brew beer, grow a garden, raise chickens or bees, but her aunt who lived in Southern Oregon did a lot of those.

There was community and culture here too, but it was the downtown culture that drew runaways. People from all over the country came here for the benefits. Several sources had told her that other states actually bussed homeless people here and dropped them off. Portland had a similar situation, but something really drew people to Eugene.

Was that why Candice came here?

Where was she today? And was she okay?

Candice Nicole Farmington. Sixteen. Blond hair, blue eyes. Fit. The perfect target for all kinds of creeps. Older men would take her in, giddy to find a willing and naive young girl. Sex traffickers would grab her and ship her off to god knew where. Groups of teens living the streets would welcome her. Small groups liked to “join up” and pool resources, usually with some half-baked scheme about going somewhere for a festival or culture they’d heard about.

This would be her second time coming to the outdoor craft and farmer’s market for this case. She’d gotten into town last Friday, came here Saturday, and then spent the week exploring and finding out what she could—which wasn’t much so far, except that people had seen Candice, and Angie might have spotted her from behind. Too bad she hadn’t been able to catch up with her.

Having a dog helped. Everyone wanted to pet the gentle giant, and Galaxy was a real people-person. Er, people-dog.

A group of girls stood chatting by a group of shirtless drummers, and Angie slowed down. A redhead girl with pretty freckles and bright red lipstick smiled at Galaxy. “What’s her name?”

The girl looked about fourteen while others looked a little older.

“Galaxy. It seemed to fit her fur and starry eyes.”

The girl squatted down to pet the dog, followed by a few others. Galaxy gave little sniffy-kisses on the girl’s cheeks, making her giggle. They were so damn young and innocent. They were out here to have fun on a Saturday, but Angie couldn’t help but think about all the creeps preying on them.

“What kind of dog is she?”

Angie went into her dog story and then how she liked Eugene so far. How she traveled around with Galaxy, working as a photographer. She even gave them her business card—the cover business card for “Dany Davis” with Perfect Finish Photography.

“That’s so cool,” one of the older girls gushed. “I’m going to do that. Just travel the US. The world too. Maybe I’ll get a dog like this one.”

Yeah, the dog really did open doors. She kept them talking while trying to listen to the side conversations. A phrase jumped out when someone said, “that new girl.”

In the next pause, Angie said, “Hey, maybe you guys can help me out.” She pulled out the photograph. “My cousin was supposed to meet up with me here last week and I haven’t heard from her. Any of you seen her?”

She held out the photo.

“Hey, I know Natasha!”

Natasha? Good thing Angie hadn’t said her real name. “Is she doing okay?”

“I think so. I mean, she’s got a few friends. That guy Demon takes care of her.”

“Demon? Did I hear you correctly?”

Several girls nodded.

Seriously? Angie tried her hardest to keep her reaction off her face. Damn it, this case might have just gotten even more serious. She had been going on the assumption that Candice came here with her boyfriend Jackson.

“That’s just what he goes by, but he’s a real sweetheart, really.” The girl smiled, confident in her assessment of others. It was a typical line, too. Young girls seemed to think any man that was nice to them was a good guy. They never questioned motives.

“What’s he like?” Angie asked. “Any idea why he calls himself that?”

Two girls exchanged a look and didn’t say anything. The redhead shrugged, but said, “Because he’s like a ghost.”

“So you don’t know what he looks like?” Angie was asking too many questions but had to try.

“He’s huge. Really tall and buff. He has tattoos all over.”

“There’s a dragon on his arm.” The second girl swiped a hand down her forearm as she talked. “To show strength and power.”

“But he helps people. His tattoos are spiritual.”

“He might look scary…but not when he smiles.” They all nodded. Angie could see he had a following here, so she needed to tread lightly.

“And he’s helping Natasha?” Angie asked. “Like with a place to stay?”

The group shrugged noncommittally.

“Wonder if I could finally find her,” Angie said, almost like she was talking to herself.

“She hasn’t been around in a few days.” The redhead seemed to feel bad at their lack of information and added, “I think she likes that bookstore up on 6th. When she’s not with Demon. He’s never awake this early so she’s probably there.”

“Got a name for the bookstore?”

Three girls said three different names, Bird Song, Blue Heron, Blue Something, and one girl added, “But it has other stuff too. It’s not just a bookstore.”

Angie talked for another minute before getting away. She made a B-line back to her Winnebago and checked Google maps for bookstores, then drove up to 6th street. Galaxy loudly drained her water bowl as they drove. There was a Blue Moon Books coming up, which sounded like what the girls meant.

Before she reached the bookstore, however, Angie spotted another shop called Blue Magic Women’s Mercantile and it had a big sign exclaiming, “Books! Clothes! Coffee! Soaps and More!”

Someone was enthusiastic about their offerings.

She pulled into the parking lot—it had “more than books” so it felt like a good start. She turned off the RV, refilled Galaxy’s water, opened the side windows to let a breeze through, and went into the shop.

The aroma of coffee and pastries met her, along with…fruit? She spotted signs for handcrafted soap, explaining that last smell. It had everything promised on the outside sign and more.

It was a cute shop, but would a runway teenage girl hang out here? Still, she was here, so she went with the direct route and approached a guy who looked her age or a little younger at the register. He was digging around like he was looking for something.

Seeing a male working in this store seemed a bit odd. He had brown hair and stubble along his haw, and when he looked up, a smoldering gaze.

“Hey there,” she greeted, pulling up a warm smile.

He straightened, and she read “Cole” on his nametag before noticing that he was staring at her in shock. His eyebrows came down slowly as his expression turned confused and suspicious. On edge now, she wondered how he’d been alerted that she might stop by.

“I’m looking for my cousin,” she started, thrown by his expression. “And I heard she comes here a lot. A young girl that goes by Natasha.” She had the photo ready and showed it to him.

“Vivi?” he asked…but he also seemed like he was calling out the name. She couldn’t tell if he was talking to her or something else. Was Candice going by both Natasha and Vivi? His gaze shifted over toward the window, then back at her, and then darted back and forth.

Was Candice—Natasha—in the shop?

Angie planned to back up slowly and spot her. Offer her money to talk. But as she backed up, Cole’s eyes kept darting back and forth, and she couldn’t stop herself. She turned to look.

It wasn’t who she expected to see leaning out from behind a bookshelf.

It was…someone who looked exactly like her.

A pair of questioning blue eyes stared back at her, out of the same heart-shaped face that Angie saw in the mirror every day. No makeup like her. Same light brown, wavy hair, except a little longer and parted in the middle instead of the side. Same height. Same everything.

They blinked at each other for what felt like a full minute before the other woman finally spoke.

“Is Natasha in trouble?”

The words surprised Angie. She’d actually forgotten why she was there—while staring at a copy of herself—but the question jolted her back into work mode. She needed something else to focus on, something to do to get around this crazy thing.

“You know her?” She took a small step toward her. “Her family is worried about her. Can I have a minute of your time?”

“Uh, yeah. Of course. Would you like to sit down?” She waved towards a small table, then met Angie half way there. “I’m Vivi.” She held out her hand.

“Dany,” Angie said her fake name, taking Vivi’s hand in a firm but not too strong handshake. They were studying each other but Angie didn’t want to be the one to say it out loud. They sat down and Vivi asked Cole to bring them coffee.

Vivi wore a long dress—like a coverall dress over a long-sleeved shirt that made Angie think of her arts and craft teacher from third grade. It was like seeing the bookworm version of herself.

“So about Natasha?” Vivi asked.

Angie pulled out the photograph, noticing a tremor in her hand. “Is this the Natasha you know?”

Vivi nodded. “Is she okay?” she asked again.

“When did you last see her?”

“A few days ago. Ah…Wednesday. You said you’re her cousin?”

Cole slowly set two mugs of coffee down as he looked back and forth between them. “So…. Vivi, you never mentioned that you have a twin.”

She gave him an odd expression, something you’d expect a teacher to do to silence a student. He slid backwards and returned behind the counter. It wasn’t any less awkward with him over there.

“Do you know how to reach her?” Angie pressed. “This is time sensitive.”

“Why?”

Angie drummed her fingers on the table, then wrapped her hands around the mug to stop her nervous habit. “Listen, I’m going to level with you.”

“That’s probably a good idea,” Vivi said dryly.

“I’m not her cousin. I’m a private investigator. Her mother hired me to find her and make sure she’s okay. She’s sixteen, and her name is Candice Farmington, but apparently she’s going by Natasha and running around with a guy named Demon.”

Demon? Seriously?”

“That’s exactly what I thought. But yeah, that’s what he calls himself. The girls downtown assured me he’s a real sweetheart.” They shared a raised-eyebrow look before Angie continued. “Candice left Boise a month ago, without leaving a note or anything. She packed clothes, so the police are treating it as a runaway case. They’re not doing much outside of sending out her photo. She told her friends that she wanted to come to Eugene with her boyfriend Jackson. He might be out of the picture already.”

Vivi leaned back with a thoughtful look on her face. So weird to watch someone with the same face!

“She’s brought a few different girls with her, but mostly she comes alone during the day. I don’t mind teenagers hanging out here, especially if they’re reading. She likes the beanbag in the back corner.”

“She seemed okay to you?”

“Yes, she did.” Vivi shrugged. “I mean, she seemed a little lonely. We talked sometimes but she’s never told me anything too personal.”

Angie leaned back too, and took a drink of her coffee, sweetened with cream and sugar. She pulled a small notepad out of her pocket. “Can you write down any names you remember? Days and times she came by? Any details at all?”

Vivi nodded and pulled the notepad over, mumbling, “I could show you how to take digital notes.”

Luckily Vivi didn’t see Angie’s expression. Of course she could take notes on her phone and then add them to her case file on her laptop—but she found it was useful to have people write down what they remembered on paper. It triggered more information.

Plus, she used the writing trick so she could have a few minutes to notice more details about the person or place while they were distracted.

While Vivi wrote, Angie glanced around at the small coffee shop in the corner, the wall of homemade jewelry, a section of homemade soaps, shelves of books, and a clothing section.

“My mom hand makes the soaps and lotions in small batches,” Vivi said, sliding the notepad back over. “This is our store. I’m also a school counselor.”

“Ah, you look the part,” Angie said, mentally comparing Vivi’s long dress to her own black leggings and black T-shirt. Vivi didn’t seem to take offense at it.

Really, she was comparing Vivi’s life to hers, and not liking the comparison.

“Are you from around here?” Vivi broke into her thoughts.

“No.” She nodded toward the RV out the window. “That’s home.”

Vivi turned to look, and Angie glanced too because she wanted to check on Galaxy, who stood proudly in the middle of the front RV window. She looked like a wolf…except for her big doggie smile and that giant tongue hanging out the side of her mouth.

Maybe Angie didn’t have a business with her mom…or have a mom around anymore…but she had her faithful sidekick. Why would she want any more than that?

“Oh my goodness! Look at your dog! What’s his name?”

“Her name is Galaxy.”

“Does she need some water? A treat?” Vivi was on her feet, and as weird as it felt, they went outside together and Angie let Galaxy out, thinking, this might be interesting.

Galaxy didn’t stop and do a double take. She treated Vivi like any new person, standing up on her back feet, sniffing, vocalizing all kinds of weird doggie talk. Vivi pulled a treat from an oversized pocket on her skirt.

“What kind of dog is she?” Vivi asked without looking up.

“A mix of Shepherd and Husky, as far as I can tell, and maybe some other large breeds. I found her abandoned out on Highway 97 in the middle of last winter. I had no idea she’d get so big.”

“Someone dumped her? Poor baby. Yes you are. Poor puppy. But you sure look happy now!” Vivi dissolved into baby talk and giggles as Galaxy nuzzled her neck and sniffed her all over.

Galaxy looked up in pure contentment, so Angie couldn’t muster a dirty glare at the betrayal.

But then Galaxy wiggle-waggled up to her, her hips doing a crazy swing dance as she let loose with a long and thoughtful vocalization.

Vivi laughed. “Wow, what a talker. She’s very affectionate, too.”

Angie almost launched into telling her how Galaxy loved babies and toddlers, and how calm she was as she approached them and asked to snuggle. But what was she doing? Why were they out here shooting the breeze?

“I should get focused back on finding Candice. This is the first real lead I’ve found.”

Vivi frowned and looked her over. Angie knew she didn’t look like the typical P.I., and that was exactly why she could work her way in and find lost teenage girls.

“So what do you do now?” Vivi asked.

“I go back to talking to people, see who else has seen her. Maybe run into her.” She pulled out a business card and gave it to her.

“Perfect Finish Photography?” Vivi asked in confusion.

“It’s my cover job, but it’s my cell number.”

Vivi looked doubtful.

“If Candice comes by, will you call me? If she looks like she’s going to leave, go ahead and tell her about me. I have two hundred in cash for her if she’ll just talk to me and call her mom.”

“Okay… I’ll let you know if I see her.” Vivi hesitated, clearly about to say more.

“See you around,” Angie said first, as she hurried up the steps, calling Galaxy.

“Wait! I have a lot of questions.”

“Doesn’t everyone?” Angie shut the door and started the RV, but waited for Vivi to take a few steps back before putting it in reverse.

Galaxy announced a long list of her own questions as they drove off.

“What was I supposed to do?” Angie asked herself and the dog. “Sit down and share life stories or something? I don’t have time.” She glanced down at Galaxy and got the uncanny feeling that the dog was judging her.

“Hey, just because Vivi looks just like me doesn’t mean anything.”

Galaxy gave her a knowing look.

***

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